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When America Was Transformed

One person who was fed up with all the patrician talk about virtue, the “public good,” and the enlightened paternalism of the leisured “natural aristocracy” was William Findley, a self-taught backwoods Pennsylvania politician. He recognized that the politicians who claimed to be disinterested were, under the guise of the “public good,” promoting their own class interests. And Findley did not entirely disapprove, for self-made men like him also had their own interests to promote. Arguing that it was legitimate for candidates to campaign on behalf of the interests of their constituents, Findley was setting forth, as Wood writes, a rationale for competitive, democratic, and interest-laden politics.

Men on the make like Findley admired a new kind of national hero: the “self-made man.” He was their “character ideal,” as the historian Joyce Appleby proposed in her pioneering book, Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans (2000), which focused on the post- revolutionary generation. The new middling man was unashamed of his obscure origins. He believed in hard work and ingenuity, Appleby wrote, “developed his inner resources, acted independently, lived virtuously, and bent his behavior to his personal goals.”

Wood describes well these ambitious people who valued work and not leisure. They aspired to be property owners, but property for them was not the static land of the gentry or the yeoman farmer. For these risk-takers, property was capital and capital was the fuel for dynamic, speculative investment. In his best-selling 1809 biography, Parson Mason Weems portrayed George Washington as a member of the hard-working middling class, turning the aristocratic slave owner into a man who worked as diligently for a living as an ordinary mechanic. Wood explains that in his depiction of Washington as an industrious businessman, Weems was validating the rising generation of middling entrepreneurs by disproving the lie that labor was a “low-lived thing, fit for none but poor people and slaves!”

In the early nineteenth century, few Americans—at least in the North—would worry much about obsessive acquisitiveness. Instead, they recognized that an individual’s quest for wealth and prosperity would enhance the prosperity of the nation. These Americans believed in virtue—but virtue, Wood contends, no longer referred to the selflessness of self-sacrificing, civic-minded citizens. Rather it meant people’s ability to be sociable and sympathetic to one another, and to get along with others for the sake of the peace and prosperity of the community. This “domestication” of classical virtue—the spread not only of politeness and civility but also of the trust that would make credit and commercial exchanges possible—is what would henceforth hold American society together. Such recasting of virtue and interest, Wood writes in a typically illuminating discussion, illustrates the evolving moral, social, and even utopian significance of the American Revolution. Indeed, well before the Jacksonian era, a new democratic vision of a prosperous, free society belonging to average working people would overcome the Founders’ vision of a classical republic.

Men of every occupation might now—or so it was thought—be referred to as gentlemen, as the celebration of work and equality replaced respect for leisure and hierarchy. “All are people,” commented the Federalist-turned-Republican Charles Ingersoll in 1810, adding that if it were not for the slaves in the South, there would be only one rank. In reality, of course, there were, as Wood recognizes, many economic and social cleavages—those that separated male and female, white and black, free and enslaved, rich and poor, educated and barely literate. Still, he argues that although the ideal of equality may have been only a popular myth, it was based on a “substantial reality—but a psychological more than an economic reality.” In the new democratic society, Wood writes, “heroic individuals, like the Founders, no longer mattered as much as they had in the past. What counted was the mass of ordinary people.” Encouraged by that myth of equality, ordinary men vigorously challenged the established order, proving, through their optimism, hard work, and success, their moral superiority over leisured aristocrats.

The old patrician order proved un able to resist the challenges of the “middling” class. Indeed, many of the members of the revolutionary generation’s political elite retired from public office—not to leisurely lives on their country estates but rather to making much-needed money. Few were wealthy enough to be able to put aside their private affairs for long. As the expenses of their huge estates became insuperable—“Where will you find an American landholder free from embarrassments?” Benjamin Rush asked John Adams—and as their speculative investments failed, those gentlemen, Wood comments, “had a great deal of trouble maintaining the desired classical independence and freedom from business and the marketplace.” Alexander Hamilton had to leave the Treasury Department early in 1795 to return to Wall Street and earn money for his family. And several high-ranking Federalists like Henry Knox, James Wilson, and Robert Morris ended their careers in bankruptcy and, in some cases, debtors’ prison. In the South, the patrician elite fared better than in the North, at least for a while. Thanks to the labor of their slaves, the gentlemen-planters of the South could enjoy their leisure and devote themselves to public service, though even some of them—including Jefferson and Monroe—would eventually face financial ruin. It was simply a fact of American life, Wood writes, that many members of the gentry could not live up to their pretensions of aristocratic status.

Madison’s hopes for government by the select few did not survive the democratic age. But neither did Hamilton’s grandiose vision of the United States as a powerful, European-style fiscal-military state. In fact, Wood argues that implicit in President Madison’s controversial handling of the War of 1812 was his rejection of that Hamiltonian vision. Though historians have criticized his wartime leadership as inept, Wood rightly praises his determination to protect republican values. Madison, he writes,

knowingly accepted the administrative confusion and inefficiencies, the military failures, and the opposition of both the Federalists and even some members of his own party, calm in the conviction that in a republic strong executive leadership could only endanger the principles for which the war was fought.

Indeed, Madison managed to withstand a powerful foreign force and win a “second war for independence” from Great Britain while protecting civil liberties at home and refusing to build up state power in the monarchical manner that Hamilton so admired.

Still, all was not lost for the Hamiltonian Federalists. While their elitist platform lacked popular appeal and their political influence waned in Congress and disappeared in the executive branch, they would continue to wield power in the third branch of government: the judiciary. Disillusioned with legislative democracy and fearful of the consequences of Jefferson’s presidency, they turned to the law and to judges, Wood writes, to provide restraints on popular power. Since Federalists were about to “experience a heavy gale of adverse wind,” said Gouverneur Morris on the eve of Jefferson’s inauguration, “can they be blamed for casting many anchors to hold their ship through the storm?”

Wood incisively points out that whereas Jefferson considered the Constitution a political document and believed that judges had no monopoly in interpreting it, Chief Justice John Marshall treated the Constitution as a legal document, which gave judges the authority to decipher its meaning. As Virginia jurist St. George Tucker said, because the men of greatest talents, education, and virtue were unable to compete in the new scrambling world of popular electoral politics, they necessarily had to look to the law for security. Thanks to the brilliant strategizing of Marshall, who described himself as “gloomy” about the democratic future under Jefferson, the Supreme Court took upon itself the power, nowhere granted to it in the Constitution, to declare laws enacted by popularly elected legislatures unconstitutional and invalid. Through this power of “judicial review,” the Court would henceforth be able to act with a freedom, writes Wood, “that sometimes is virtually legislative in scope. Nowhere else in the modern world do courts wield as much power in shaping the contours of life as the Supreme Court does in the United States.”

The great irony in the history of the early republic, Wood underscores, is that many of the leaders of the democratically minded Republican Party were southerners like Jefferson and Madison. They unleashed the forces of egalitarianism, manufacturing, and capitalism in the North, and yet the South—their South—remained mostly immune to that dynamic culture. Though the ethos of work, enterprise, and prosperity had come to define the “national” culture of the United States, it had in fact taken hold only in the North. The South, Wood recognizes, stood apart, as many southerners disdained not only work, which they deemed fit only for slaves, but also commerce and industry. While the North plunged into the future, nostalgic southerners turned to the past, clinging to the agrarian myth of yeoman farmers leading independent, virtuous lives on the soil as well as to the aristocratic idyll of a leisurely, gracious life of family, hospitality, books, and slaves on lovely plantations. Even Virginia, which had been the revolutionary nation’s premier state in size, population, wealth, and leadership, rejected the ideology of economic development. Virginia’s leaders scorned the Yankee faith in progress and the notion that economic growth and industrialization were the guarantors of happiness.

The South had fewer towns, schools, roads, canals, newspapers, businesses, manufacturing firms, banks, and shops—and fewer teachers, doctors, publishers, and engineers. Southern legislatures taxed their citizens less and spent less on education and social services. Politically, too, the South remained backward, for the patrician order of slaveholders that dominated the culture and politics of the South took a dim view of an intrusive national government and a restless people who might challenge their authority. As the dynamic, enterprising, egalitarian North seized control of the nation’s identity, the South defended and even celebrated its difference. And as southern men of letters devoted themselves to elaborate defenses of slavery, praising slave owners for their Christian and patriarchal stewardship, for civilizing and caring for inferior black people, they put the seal on the intellectual as well as the economic impoverishment of the South.

Things had not worked out as the Founders had hoped and expected. Hamilton hated President Jefferson’s policies, which, he insisted, could be traced directly to “the culpable desire of gaining or securing popularity at an immediate expence of public utility.” Nor was John Adams pleased. “Oh my Country,” he lamented in 1806, “how I mourn over…thy contempt of Wisdom and Virtue and overweening admiration of fools and knaves! the never failing effects of democracy!” While Federalists like Hamilton and Adams bemoaned social trends, southern Republicans like Jefferson despaired about economic ones. “Pseudo-citizens…infected with the mania of rambling and gambling” filled Jefferson with loathing and apprehension.

Though he recognized that the problem of slavery was devastating the South, he came to believe that something even more lethal was ravaging the empire of liberty. Although it was his commitment to liberty and equality that, in Wood’s words, “justified and legitimated the many pursuits of happiness that were bringing unprecedented prosperity to so many average white Americans,” Jefferson somberly concluded that an obsession with commerce and moneymaking was threatening the very existence of the young republic. Withdrawing to his mountaintop home after his retirement from the presidency, he held out the hope that the agrarian states not only of the West but also of the slaveholding South would be the “last asylum and bulwark” of the principles of free government.

The final irony, Wood memorably reminds us in this superb book, is that Jefferson, who had the bracing perception that “the earth belongs in usufruct to the living” and that the dead had neither powers nor rights over it, bequeathed, much to his chagrin, to his successors the crippling legacy of slavery, leaving future generations to resolve in war and in blood the mortally competing visions of the American nation.

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